At 75, Brennaman makes his broadcast plans one year at a time
My good friend Andy Furman, a Cincinnati radio figure for decades, sat down for a question and answer session with the area’s celebrated play-by-play announcer, the Reds’ Marty Brennaman.
A little background before turning it over to Andy and Marty:
It continues to be a glorious ride for Marty Brennaman, now in his 45th season in the Reds' booth. He arrived in Cincinnati in 1974 after three years calling AAA ball for the Tidewater (Now Norfolk) Tides . Only two big league announcers have more tenure with the same club than Brennaman; Bob Uecker in his 48th year with the Brewers and Denny Matthews now in his 50th with the Royals.
Given the fact that by his own admission he was a terrible athlete, Brennaman didn’t think he would ever grow into a play-by-play broadcaster. As a little league right fielder, he misjudged fly balls while simultaneously talking to his girlfriends who were off to the side. Marty's acting in high school plays was hardly impressive either. He once fell off the stage into the orchestra pit! So, as he put it, “I undertook something less hazardous, play-by-play.”
Brennaman wears his emotions on his sleeve. In his 2000 acceptance speech in Cooperstown, where he received the coveted Ford Frick Award for broadcast excellence, his eyes welled up when he reminisced about his dad who didn’t live to see his magical day. He also used the pulpit that afternoon to boldly promote Pete Rose’s Hall of Fame induction and to make a case for his 31 year on-air Reds colleague, Joe Nuxhall. Taking a stand shouldn’t surprise those who’ve heard Brennaman all these decades or even in recent seasons when he's harshly criticized team star Joey Votto.
Marty has talked about how he loved listening to Chuck Thompson, also a Frick awardee, who called Baltimore Orioles games for years. The old Senators' announcer John MacLean was also a favorite. Born in Portsmouth, south of Norfolk, Brennaman also referenced a less known broadcaster who inspired him.
Nat Allbright recreated Dodgers’ games for a network of stations outside New York City. The Reds' play-by-player says that Allbright’s broadcasts were so good that he didn’t realize until years later that the games weren’t done live from the stadium. “He gave me a subconscious seat,” Brennaman said of Allbright.
For two gentlemen so connected with baseball, it’s interesting to note that Brennaman, like Vin Scully, is also associated with one of the bigger athletic feats in non-baseball history.
In 1992, on network radio, Brennaman called the Grant Hill 75 foot pass to Christian Laettner who made a stunning game winning shot to put Duke in the Final Four. Earlier in his career in Virginia, Brennaman broadcast ABA games of the Virginia Squires. In 1982 on CBS TV, Scully voiced the renowned throw by 49ers' quarterback Joe Montana to Dwight Clark. “The Catch” as it is famously known put San Francisco in the Super Bowl.
Brennaman followed other star-studded announcers in Cincinnati . Al Michaels, Red Barber, Gene Kelly and the raconteur Waite Hoyt all graced the booth through the years. Nuxhall, Brennaman’s longtime sidekick, was a pretty good storyteller himself. Occasionally, Brennaman will jokingly thank his predecessor Michaels, who departed the Reds’ booth after the 1973 season, paving his opportunity to come to the Queen City.
At age 75, Brennaman is working on Walt Alston like one year contracts. He insists that he doesn’t want a big send off when he hangs up his broadcast cleats. He came quietly and wants to leave quietly. That might be his toughest professional challenge yet. He’s so beloved that it will be impossible for him to tip-toe his way into retirement. Still, at some point, Brennaman might have to steal some version of Nuxhall’s famous closing line on Reds broadcasts , “This is the old lefthander rounding third and coming home.”
Marty Brennaman Q&A with Cincinnati's longtime radio personality Andy Furman:
You grew up in Virginia, not a Major League area. Who did you enjoy listening to and which announcers influenced your style?
I loved Chuck Thompson who did the Baltimore Orioles’ games. John McLean, who did the old Washington Senators games, was a big influence on me as well.
But the biggest influence? A man by the name of Nat Allbright. He recreated Brooklyn Dodger baseball games. It was unreal. I had no idea what a re-creation was but I loved listening to him. In fact, before I was inducted into the Ford Frick wing in Cooperstown, I tracked him down – and told him the major impact he had on my life. I had no idea he was even alive. (Allbright died in 2011 at 87.) He had such an influence on me back in 1955 and 1956 when I was growing up in Portsmouth, Va. Well, after we talked, he broke down and cried.
You arrived in Cincinnati in 1974 after doing AAA ball in Virginia. When you did, you took over for Al Michaels. How were you received?
I have to admit, fairly well, considering how popular Al was in Cincinnati. Actually, I was ready for criticism. Al was extremely popular. But as I recall, I didn’t get much, if any heat. However, due to my own insecurity I didn’t really feel accepted.
I remember the turn of events. It was a doubleheader against the Giants in July. The Reds were down 13-9, with two outs in the 9th. (Johnny) Bench hit a ground ball – a routine out – to Dave Kingman. Pitcher Randy Moffitt, (Billie Jean King's brother) never left the mound to cover. So now the Reds have two on, with two out. Tony Perez comes up and hits a three-run homer and the Reds win, 14-13. I went nuts. Fans were calling the next day for the replay – I felt I had arrived.
In the mid ‘70s, you did a couple World Series on national television. You teamed with two legends, Curt Gowdy and Joe Garagiola. What are your memories of working with them on NBC?
My memories were mostly good. Working with Gowdy in just my second year as a big-league broadcaster, I gotta tell you, I was scared to death. This was network TV – and these guys along with Tony Kubek were the kings of the land as far as network baseball was concerned. Gowdy and Kubek were truly great to me. In fact, Gowdy was so good that after the Series, I wrote him a letter of thanks.
You’re not afraid to express your opinion. You’ve been critical of Joey Votto, Cubs’ fans and others. Any regrets?
Regrets? No. Not at all. If I needed to say something – I did. As for the Cubs thing, I had no idea of the potential backlash. I said something to the effect, “The only people who root for the Cubs, are Cubs fans.” Ouch. Fans threw some 40 baseballs on the field. I didn’t realize the impact.
In fact, my oldest daughter, Dawn who lives in Chicago called me two days later and said, “What did you say to stir things up here.” She said she saw it on a TV crawl.
In fact, the next time the club visited Chicago, I had two security guards on the trip. Thankfully nothing happened. But I did get hate mail.
As for Votto, I said I felt corner infielders should hit for power and drive in runs. The irony of it all – last year he did. And I’ll say this, Votto will go down as the greatest hitter in the club’s history. Pete Rose has the most hits – but Votto is the best hitter. Best hitter all-time in baseball? Easy. Ted Williams.
Your so Thom is a member of the Reds’ broadcast crew. What’s it like having your son on the team?
It’s great, just wonderful. I actually don’t get much of a chance to work with him since he’s solely on the TV side. We didn’t work together last year, either. But he’s on the road with us, and we have dinner. We do the radio thing together in spring training. But the big thing is he’s here and so are the grand kids.
Today, some of the newer announcers are introducing analytics into the broadcasts. From your perspective, what’s more important in a broadcast, anecdotes or statistics?
I never beat anyone over the head with statistics; although some announcers do. You need a certain balance – yet it varies from announcer to announcer. My first three to four years, I was at a disadvantage. I didn’t have any anecdotes. I was working with Joe (Nuxhall) who played the game and had tons of stories. Doing broadcasts without earlier references is doing listeners a disservice. There’s great history in baseball, and it should be told. Yet, it seems anecdotes are the flavor of the decade now. I'll say this about analytics – it can’t tell me what’s between a players’ ears or what’s inside his chest. If we relied on analytics, I’m certain Jose Altuve wouldn’t be in the big leagues.
Do you agree that baseball announcers must blend two elements on-air; information and entertainment? If so, what suggestions would you make to budding play-by-players?
I talk to young kids all the time, and the first piece of information I give them is in the form of a question – “Are you in love?”
Yes, I mean romantically involved – because in order to begin the broadcast journey you’ll have to be prepared to go anywhere in the country – for little money.
I’m not opposed to romance – be it man and man, woman and woman or man and woman – I just think the broadcast journey can easily put a hitch in any romance.
You’re in your mid 70s. Bob Uecker, in his 80s and is still working. Vin Scully was in the booth through his late 80s. How much longer do you want to go?
Honestly, I don’t know. I’m fortunate in that the ownership group I work for is the best – and I mean that sincerely. I go year-to-year, I meet with Phil Castellini (Reds’ COO) in August and he’ll say, “What do you want to do?” The meeting takes around five minutes. Vin Scully always had a one-year contract. He told me when you get up in years its easier to have a one-year deal than to lock yourself into a three-year contract.
How would you view your broadcast legacy?
The biggest thing, the biggest single thing when I walk away, is I’d hope people who listened would say - is I had a high level of credibility. Without credibility you have nothing.
People say to me, I tell it like it is. Not really – I tell it like I think it is.
In 1978, in Shea Stadium I berated George Foster, the Reds left fielder who dropped a fly ball. Little did I know he was sick as a dog that day. He played with 103-degree fever. I apologized on-air the next day.
Jim Simpson, a member of the National Sportscasters Hall of Fame, said it best – and I remembered. The biggest mistake we can make is not correcting one.
While you didn’t do a ton of basketball, you did call the ’92 miracle play, the Duke win over Kentucky, the Grant Hill pass to Christian Laettner. What are your memories?
You talk about Game 6 of the 1975 World Series (Reds-Red Sox) and the Duke-Kentucky Game – you’re talking about perhaps the two greatest games ever played. And I was part of both.
The only unfortunate thing about the Duke-Kentucky game was it had to end.
I remember it was the last game Kentucky radio legend and voice of the Cats Cawood Ledford called. The game was at The Spectrum in Philadelphia.
After the game, I saw Duke Coach K make a b-line to Cawood – giving him his farewell. That made me a big Coach K fan.
As for the game itself, I bought the video and just privileged to have been a part of it.